As the number of patients vaccinated across the US nears 20MM, a growing number of states are warning about a disturbing trend that, as it happens, dovetails with the WHO’s warnings about inequality related to vaccine access: More wealthy patients are engaging in “vaccine tourism” – shuttling between vacation homes or simply traveling to another nearby state – to try and secure earlier access to one of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID jabs.
In the latest confirmation that the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna will be for the privileged few, while the rest of the world will need to make do with AstraZeneca’s jab or, worse, the SinoVac jab (or a jab produced by another Chinese company closely tied to the state). Bloomberg reports that “vaccine tourism” is officially “a thing” in the US…though we don’t know exactly how many people are engaging in the practice, various states have witnessed rising numbers of people engaging in the practice.
Beach resort towns in southern Florida and Hawaii, along with ski towns out in Colorado (as well as suburban New Jersey and Connecticut, for the thousands of wealthy New Yorkers doubtless engaging in the process) have been struggling to ensure that the doses – which are, at least for now, still technically federal property – end up with local residents, though many states and localaities added that they won’t refuse patients who meet the eligibility requirements.
Frustrated by crashing appointment websites, shortages of Covid-19 shots and a patchwork of confusing eligibility rules, people with time and money are heading out of town in pursuit of a potentially life-saving inoculation.
Vaccine-seeking tourists are showing up in Miami, at beach resorts in Hawaii, ski towns in Colorado and in New York City, which has received more doses than other parts of the state, as well as nearby New Jersey and Connecticut.
There is no national data, yet states that keep track suggest that tens of thousands of Americans are traveling for the vaccine. More than 37,000 out-of-staters have received Covid-19 shots in Florida, according to state data as of Tuesday. The figure excludes people who have second residences or businesses in Florida, where about 1 million have been vaccinated.
Even though refusal numbers across the US have been surprisingly high for both health-care workers, and long-term care home residents (it even force Gov. Cuomo to loosen eligibility restrictions in New York as vaccines were being left to rot on the shelves), this new vaccine tourism trend raises “ethical concerns,” according to Bloomberg.
More than 17 million doses have been administered across the U.S., according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. Health policy experts say that, generally, the more people with shots in arms, the better. Yet vaccine tourism raises concerns over what happens to people who don’t have the money—or aren’t healthy enough—to travel for immunization. There are also ethical questions about whether it’s right to appropriate a dose intended for a specific city or state. The tourism industry hasn’t launched large marketing campaigns, so as to avoid appearing to advocate skirting the rules.
Though, at this point, with the high number of refusals seen over the last few weeks, health-care policy experts are conceding that there’s no practical downside to getting “shots in arms”, as they say.
Health experts also have concerns about people traveling for immunization.
“Everything we can do to get more people vaccinated will decrease the spread of Covid,” said Marissa J. Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida. “But we’re in a situation where demand is outstripping supply significantly, so that puts people on edge if they perceive that others are coming in to take their vaccine, even if it’s really all of our vaccine.”
Vaccines are technically federal property that don’t belong to any one locality, making residency requirements hard to enforce, said Levine, who served four years as Virginia’s state health commissioner.
Ski towns have attempted to limit vaccination to residents – with some success – to ensure people will still be around to get their second shot a few weeks later.
Aspen’s Pitkin County says those eligible for the vaccine must live or work there.
In some places, like Deer Park, Utah, local officials are even asking workers from outside the area to come there and get the shots.
Now, Pfizer is reportedly saying it would be willing to sell doses directly to the states, surpassing the federal government in a way that Gov Andrew Cuomo of New York has asked Pfizer to do. Technically, all vaccine doses right now are federal property. But that might soon change, opening up new opportunities to get those numbers up – and profits along with them.